Gut Troubles? Here’s How To Manage Your Symptoms WITHOUT eliminating the Foods You Love
Abdomen extended like a balloon, wind as you walk or frequent trips to the bathroom? If you answered yes to any of these symptoms, you’re not alone. Research shows that 10-25% of people experience gut troubles to some degree; a little bit of bloating from time to time is normal. However, if your symptoms of abdominal pain, discomfort, or change in bowel habits is constant, you may be suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
In the quest to quell gut discomfort, many people become their own food detectives and eliminate food groups based on what they have heard from friends or in the media in the hope of finding the trigger. Some go gluten free, or eliminate dairy while others self-prescribe and follow a low FODMAP diet, which eliminates all foods containing short chain carbohydrates including those high in fructose (e.g. apples, pears), lactose (most dairy foods), fructans (wheat, rye, garlic, onion), galactans (legumes) and polyols (some fruits and sweeteners).
The problem with following these diets without consulting a dietitian is that you may miss out on key nutrients, such as calcium, B vitamins, and fibre. They are also not meant to be followed long-term!
In my experience, many people don’t need to eliminate food groups or follow the complete FODMAP’s diet to manage symptoms of cramps, bloating, wind or pain. The trick is to understand the difference between normal and abnormal bowel symptoms, do a general clean-up of your diet, consider exercise, stress management, and THEN pinpoint what foods may be causing your symptoms if they don’t subside.
First things first: bloating and gas are completely normal and temporary in some cases. This is because our digestive system is filled with nerve endings and can become sensitive as food travels through and is broken down. It’s also important to understand that if you eat a half a loaf of bread, a pile of nachos smothered in sour cream, or a family sized bag of M&M’s (practical examples of course…) you will feel sick. This is normal.
However, if you are experiencing gut pain on a daily basis there are a few things you should try before self-diagnosing intolerances and removing food groups from your diet.
1. Limit processed foods and eat more fibre
The simplest approach in decreasing the occurrence of gut symptoms is doing a general tidy up of your diet. Cut down of fatty takeaways, foods high in added sugars, excess alcohol and caffeine as these are not gut friendly. These foods are energy dense, but lack the fibre and key nutrients that keep our gut bacteria healthy and happy. Keeping these bacteria in balance (we want more good than bad bugs) is important as they aid in digestion, support our immune system and synthesise important nutrients including vitamins B12 and K, folate and short-chain fatty acids.
The foods that feed our gut bacteria best contain prebiotic fibre, found in fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. For example, you could try oats for breakfast, add chickpeas or beans to your salad at lunch, or include prebiotic rich vegetables such as asparagus, snow peas and sweet corn to a stir-fry at dinner.
However, it’s important to add these foods in slowly. Going from zero to one hundred gut health friendly foods can sometimes worsen bloating and gas. Start slowly to allow your digestive system to adapt.
Do you suffer from bloating associated with constipation? When increasing your fibre intake, it’s important to make sure you are also staying well hydrated as fibre depends on water to keep you regular.
Soluble fibre absorbs water and enables stools easier to pass. Insoluble fibre retains water and adds bulk to the stool. Getting a balance of both fibre types along with enough water will keep things moving along at the right pace. As a general rule hitting 25-28g of fibre and 2-3L of water each day keeps everything in balance. Oh and one other thing – stay away from carbonated beverages; the bubbles may make bloating worse!
3. Include probiotics
Probiotics can help restore the balance of good bacteria in the gut and support immune function. There are so many different probiotic strains which are beneficial for digestive health, with research showing some have additional benefits such as decreasing the likelihood and severity of upper respiratory tract infections and managing gut symptoms such as bloating. My favourite protiotic supplement is Bioceuticals Ultrabiotic45 as it contains a wide variety of strains that promote good digestive health, and reduce symptoms of IBS.
However, you don’t necessarily need a supplement to get your daily dose of probiotics. Foods that naturally contain probiotics include some probiotic-rich yogurt such as Danone Activia, or fermented foods including sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, tempeh, kimchi and kefir.
4. Manage Stress
Working long hours, caring for loved ones, keeping a social life and exercising regularly is bloody stressful and your gut will let you know about it! It’s well known that symptoms of IBS can be made worse by anxiety and stress. It’s important to manage stress in order to decrease the severity or development of gut symptoms. Allow time each day to wind down by reading a book, meditating, doing some gentle exercise and prioritising sleep.
5. Move More
Exercise can help improve symptoms of bloating, abdominal discomfort and help keep you regular, but it’s crucial to pick the right type. Vigorous exercise such as running, or a high intensity circuit class may jolt the digestive system and increase symptoms, so save this type of workout for when you’re feeling good. In the meantime, stick to low intensity movement such as walking, gentle cycling on a stationary bike, or yoga (twisting movements and yogi squats are especially helpful if suffering from constipation).
These types of exercise will promote peristalsis, or the movement of food through the intestines, and may help ameliorate symptoms of pain and bloating.
6. Consider Food Intolerances
If you have ticked off a balanced diet, regular exercise, stress management and are STILL experiencing digestive discomfort, you may have an intolerance to certain foods. It’s important to figure out what the specific food is, and how much you can tolerate before symptoms occur, so you can manage your diet accordingly. But it’s important not to do this on your own! Symptoms don’t always happen immediately after eating a certain food so sometimes the trigger is not obvious. A dietitian can help investigate patterns between your diet and symptoms without unnecessarily eliminating food groups, so your gut stays happy and healthy and your taste buds don’t miss out on your favourite foods.
Melanie is one of Sydney’s top Sports Dietitian’s. Commencing her career in hospitals, before specialising in Sports Nutrition and Personal Training, gives Mel the unique combination to understand the nutritional demands of exercise. Her approach is simplistic, backed by science and results based. Check out befitdietitian.com for more information or to book a consult.